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… Step Left Domestically, Gesture Left Globally, but Keep Your Foreign Policies Somewhat Centered

By Gil Troy, History News Network (HNN), 8-3-09

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. His latest book is: Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books).

Throughout the presidential campaign, both supporters and opponents of Barack Obama wondered if he was as centrist as he sounded when he called for bipartisanship, or as liberal  as some of his close friends and core principles seemed to be.

Since his inauguration on January 20, President Obama has alternated between making decisions that incense conservatives and taking actions Republicans support.  Yet this zig-zag has not been random.  The policy shifts detailed below demonstrate a clear pattern in Obama’s decision-making. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel summed up Obama’s approach domestically, saying: You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  The president has used the economic meltdown to veer left, fulfilling many items on the liberal “wish list” by expanding government, protecting the environment, funding abortions overseas and lifting Bush-era limits on funding stem cell research.

Regarding foreign policy, Obama has positioned himself as the “un-Bush,” reaching out to America’s adversaries and critics even at the cost of dismaying some of America’s friends, especially Israel. Yet, his characteristic caution has moderated his actual foreign policies. Thus, he has gestured left while governing toward the center, proceeding moderately in his national security policies by not withdrawing too hastily from Iran, increasing troops in Afghanistan, and authorizing attacks from unmanned armed Drones in Pakistan.

This Moderometer – developed with the help of my students at McGill University and especially Theodoric Meyer — attempts to convey graphically a sense of whether Obama is shifting left (into blue territory), right into (red territory) or aiming for the center. Periodically, at least twice a month, we will update this chart, trying to choreograph Obama’s zig-zag, hoping that he will fulfill his promise and lead from the center. For information read Launching the Moderometer

Launching the Moderometer

The HNN Homepage features the “moderometer,” my attempt to summarize and chart Barack Obama’s most significant policy moves, to see if he is leading from the center, as he vowed to do during the presidential campaign.

I acknowledge the “Alice in the Looking Glass” nature of this exercise: it is problematic to simplify complex actions with a label, a graphic, a score; the center itself can be an elusive concept; sometimes stances are perceived today as “left” or “right,” “red” or “blue” when they are not or should not be — such as speaking out against racism; and sometimes, Obama’s actions are labeled as more ideological than he intended. Nevertheless, despite this uncertainty, there is value in charting the changing labels because the perceptions shape the narrative of this presidency, which Obama promised would be “post-partisan.”

The moderometer is a collaborative effort, which began last year during the 2008 presidential campaign with students from my History 301 “History of Presidential Election Campaigning” course at McGill University, with a very helpful assist from HNN’s very own Editor/Features Editor Bonnie Goodman. This summer, another student Theodoric Meyer has taken on the task of helping me chart Obama’s moves, with a valuable graphics assist from a fellow student Harris Shain.


July 22: WEIGHS IN ON HARVARD PROFESSOR’S ARREST: Responding to a reporter’s question at an evening news conference, President Obama criticizes the Cambridge Police as “acting stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard professor and friend of the president. Gates, who is African-American, was arrested in his home over the weekend after his lock jammed and he was mistaken for a burglar.  Commentators have noted that it is very unusual for a sitting president to criticize members of local law enforcement.  (Domestic – Left)

July 22: MAKES PRIME-TIME PRESS CONFERENCE PUSH FOR HEALTH CARE BILL: Viewing passage of health care reform as pivotal to his presidency, Obama spends most of his hour-long prime-time press conference championing his approach. “Can I guarantee that there are going to be no changes in the health-care delivery system? No,” the President said. “The whole point of this is to try to encourage changes that work for the American people and make them healthier.” (Domestic – Left)

July 21: SENATE BOWS TO F-22 VETO THREAT: In an important victory for the president, the Senate votes 58-40 to remove $1.75 billion earmarked for the production of seven new F-22 fighter jets. President Obama had repeatedly threatened to veto the bill if it contained money for what he deemed the “unnecessary” new fighters. The vote was based more on pork than party lines: the five Democrats, four Republicans, and one independent from the states in which most of the jobs the planes support are located all voted against the president. From the President’s perspective, he could satisfy the left by targeting the defense budget while placating the right by appearing fiscally conservative (Domestic – Center)

July 13: PUSHES CONGRESS ON HEALTH LEGISLATION: Returning from his weeklong trip abroad, President Obama presses Congressional Democrats to move forward on health care legislation in a meeting at the White House.  The legislation has been particularly bogged down in the Senate, where the Finance Committee is struggling to reduce the potential bill’s trillion-dollar price tag. The president is pushing for both the Senate and the House to pass bills before the August recess. (Domestic – Left)

July 11: CALLS ON AFRICA TO BUILD ‘STRONG INSTITUTIONS’: On his much-anticipated visit to the West African nation of Ghana, President Obama exhorts Africa to take responsibility for its problems and embrace democracy as a means of building wealth. The speech, broadcast throughout the continent and widely hailed by Africans, followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; indeed, at one point in the speech Obama acknowledged that he was “building on the strong efforts of President Bush.” (Foreign – Center)

July 8: CHAMPIONS AID TO FARMERS AT G8 MEETING: At the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, President Obama calls on seven other heads of state to contribute $15 billion of agricultural aid to developing countries.  The proposed effort will focus on providing seed, fertilizer, and other agricultural essentials to poor nations, rather than simply shipping emergency food aid in times of crisis. (Foreign – Left)

July 6: REACHES NUCLEAR AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA: On his first state visit to Russia, President Obama signs an agreement with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to further reduce the number of nuclear weapons in both Russia and the United States. Republicans such as former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton criticized the agreement for going too far in its reductions of missile delivery systems, however, to a number that Bolton called “shockingly low.” (Foreign – Left)

July 4:  REACTS MILDLY TO NORTH KOREA MISSILE TEST: North Korea marked the Fourth of July by test-firing seven ballistic SCUD missiles. The Obama administration was initially silent, just days after appointing Philip S. Goldberg, a senior diplomat who advised Richard Holbrooke in the 1990s, to coordinate international sanctions against North Korea. The United Nations Security Council authorized such sanctions earlier in the month, but many are concerned they will not be enforced, especially by the Chinese. (Foreign – Left)

June 28: SALUTES CLIMATE BILL WHILE OPPOSING TRADE SANCTIONS: Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, President Obama hails the passage of a bill in the House designed to combat global warming as key move toward a more sustainable American energy policy. The president criticized a portion of the bill that would impose trade sanctions on countries that refused to pass similar laws, however, saying such measures sent “protectionist signals.” Free trade is traditionally a Republican area of concern. (Domestic/Foreign – Center/Left)

June 20: ADOPTS A HARSHER TONE IN IRAN CRITICISM: After a week of protests in Tehran following the disputed Iranian elections, President Obama calls on the Iranian government “to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.” The president resisted demands from some Republicans that he condemn the regime and impose sanctions, however. He also disappointed Iranian dissidents by being too slow to condemn the regime. Some experts warned Obama to avoid allowing the Iranian government to paint the protestors as American stooges, undermining the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi. (Foreign – Center/Left)

June 17: TAKES A CAUTIOUS LINE ON GAY RIGHTS: President Obama signs an executive memo extending some rights to gay and lesbian federal employees and their partners, such as the right to take a leave of absence to care for a sick partner. Gay rights activists, already angered by the Justice Department’s recent argument in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, condemned the president for stopping short of providing full health care benefits. (Domestic – Center)

June 9: TOUTS REVIVED “PAY AS YOU GO” LEGISLATION: The president announces he is sending legislation to Congress to revive the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, commonly known as the “pay as you go,” or Paygo, law. In theory, the measure would prevent Congress from enacting spending bills without raising taxes or making corresponding budget cuts. A skeptical Republican National Committee, however, responded by issuing a viciously worded statement: “President Obama and Congressional Democrats telling Americans they are committed to budget discipline is like Charles Ponzi telling people to trust him with their money.” (Domestic – Center)

June 4: REACHES OUT TO MUSLIM WORLD IN CAIRO: In a widely anticipated speech at Cairo University in Egypt, President Obama struck a careful tone, reaching out to Muslims while criticizing Iran and calling the United States’ commitment to Israel “unbreakable.” The president stresses that “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.” (Foreign – Center/Left)

June 2: PICKS REPUBLICAN FOR ARMY SECRETARY: President Obama announces that he will nominate yet another Republican to a top administration job, tapping New York Congressman John M. McHugh to be the administration’s secretary of the Army. McHugh’s nomination came on the heels of the president’s selection of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, another Republican, as his ambassador to China. Shortly after selecting McHugh, Obama also picked former Representative Jim Leach, Republican of Iowa, to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Domestic – Center)

June 1: PUSHES G.M. INTO BANKRUPTCY: As General Motors files for bankruptcy, President Obama announces that the federal government will take a 60 percent ownership share in the “new G.M.”  The United Auto Workers, the Canadian federal government, and the government of Ontario will also own significant portions of G.M. in the president’s plan to temporarily nationalize America’s largest automaker. (Domestic – Left)

May 27: REITERATES CALL ON ISRAEL TOP HALT SETTLEMENTS: After meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton states that President Obama wants to see a complete stop to Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, including “‘natural growth’ exceptions,” putting the administration at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president echoed Clinton’s comments after meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, the next day. (Foreign – Left)

May 26: NOMINATES SOTOMAYOR TO SUPREME COURT: After stating earlier in the month that he would select an empathetic candidate to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, the president nominates Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Conservatives attack Sotomayor for a remark made in 2005 suggesting that “a wise Latina woman” might be able to interpret the law better than a white male. Several conservative groups later urge Senator Mitch McConnell to filibuster the nomination. (Domestic – Left)

May 19: ANNOUNCES NEW MILEAGE STANDARDS: President Obama announces new federal vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards based on the rigorous California rules previously rejected by the Bush administration. The standards, which had previously been set by the states, will go into effect in 2012. (Domestic – Left )

May 18: SUGGESTS TOUGHER STANCE ON IRAN: After an extended meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, the president struck a more hawkish tone in his approach toward Iran, saying he expects to see diplomatic results by the end of the year. According to the White House, multilateral talks involving the U.S. and Iran are expected to start after Iran’s elections in June. (Foreign – Center)

May 15: RETAINS MILITARY TRIBUNALS FOR GUANTÁNAMO PRISONERS: President Obama announces that the United States will maintain the military commission system used by the Bush administration for trying some Guantánamo Bay detainees. Despite proposed changes to increase prisoners’ legal rights at the tribunals, human rights groups and the ACLU sharply criticized the move. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) both offered cautious praise, however. (Foreign – Center)

May 13: ATTEMPTS TO BLOCK RELEASE OF ABU GHRAIB PHOTOGRAPHS: In a sharp reversal, the president announces that his administration will seek to block the release of photographs depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by American soldiers. Though the Pentagon had agreed to release the pictures in April in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama “believes their release would endanger our troops.” (Foreign/Domestic – Center)

May 8:  RENEWS SANCTIONS AGAINST SYRIA: Even as two senior diplomats are in Damascus, seeking better ties with Syria, President Obama renews the economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed during the Bush years on Syria. In his letter to Congress, Obama accuses Syria of “supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.” (Foreign – Center)

May 5: SENDS “TOUGH-LOVE” MESSAGES TO ISRAEL: At the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Vice President Joe Biden tells the audience, “you’re not going to like my saying this,” as he pressures Israel to stop settlement activity. Biden’s words, along with speeches from Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton linking progress against Iranian nuclear weaponry with progress toward a Palestinian state, sends a message of “tough-love” to Israel’s new government. (Foreign – Left)

May 4: GOES AFTER OFFSHORE HOLDINGS AND BANK ACCOUNTS: President Obama proposes eliminating tax loopholes that allow multinational corporations and the wealthy to pay little to no tax on certain offshore holdings. While the president champions the changes as a way to pay for middle class tax cuts, members of the business lobby immediately attack the plan. (Domestic – Left)

April 21: TRIPLES SIZE OF AMERICORPS PUBLIC SERVICE PROGRAM: The president signs legislation tripling the size of the AmeriCorps public service program at an event with Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The law, which provides $5.7 billion to create 150,000 more places in the program, echoes John F. Kennedy’s calls for national service in the early 1960s. (Domestic – Left)

April 21: REFUSES TO PREVENT COMMISSION INVESTIGATING INTERROGATION: Under pressure from Congressional Democrats and interest groups, President Obama tells reporters that he would not stand in the way of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration. The president says he will leave the decision whether or not to prosecute Justice Department lawyers who told the CIA such techniques were legal up to Attorney General Eric Holder. (Domestic – Left)

April 20: PUSHES BUDGET CUTS: In his first full cabinet meeting, the president directs cabinet secretaries to trim $100 million from their budgets. While the action is meant to symbolize the administration’s willingness to combat government waste, several conservative groups mock the token effort. The president counters that the initiative was part of a larger effort. (Domestic – Center)

April 18:  BOYCOTTS DURBAN REVIEW CONFERENCE: After initially sending diplomats to a preliminary meeting to try salvaging the conference, President Obama announces that the United States will boycott the Durban Review conference, to be held in Geneva. Ultimately, ten counties boycott the conference because of its anti-Israel taint and its risk to free speech. (Foreign – Center

April 17: SHAKES HANDS WITH HUGO CHAVEZ: Attending his first Summit of Americas meeting, Obama smiles and shakes hand with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. The next day, Chavez approaches Obama again with a handshake, and gives him a book:  Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduado Gaeleano. (Foreign – Left)

April 16: DETAILS CIA INTERROGATION TECHNIQUES: After considerable internal debate, the Justice Department releases four memos describing CIA interrogation techniques used under the Bush administration. President Obama simultaneously declares that CIA officers who used the techniques will not face prosecution, though he does not extend the guarantee to the Justice Department lawyers who advised the CIA officers. (Foreign/Domestic – Left)

April 13: EASES CUBAN ISOLATION: The Obama administration announces it will ease its policies on travel to Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit without restriction and send unlimited gifts and money. The policy is somewhat more relaxed than under Bill Clinton and significantly more so than under George W. Bush. Several Republicans criticize the decision. (Foreign – Left)

April 12: ISSUES SHOOT-TO-KILL ORDER AGAINST SOMALI PIRATES: President Obama authorizes the use of force against Somali pirates holding American merchant Captain Richard Phillips hostage, leading to the killing of three pirates and Phillips’s release. Though militarily insignificant,  the order stands in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to land U.S. troops in Haiti during the first year of his presidency. (Foreign – Center)

April 6:  APPEALS TO MUSLIM WORLD: Three days after apologizing in Europe that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” President Obama visits his first Muslim nation, Turkey.  In a well-publicized speech, he acknowledges his own Muslim relatives and declares that the United States “is not and will never be at war with Islam.” (Foreign – Left)

March 24: BOOSTS SECURITY ON MEXICAN BORDER: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announces the administration is sending hundreds of federal agents to increase security along the Mexican border.  (Domestic/Foreign – Center)

March 20: REACHES OUT TO IRANIANS: President Obama appeals to the people of Iran via video. In a taped address released on a Farsi festival celebrating the arrival of spring, Obama says his “administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.” (Foreign – Left)

March 19: ENCOURAGES HYBRID CARS: During a speech in Pomona, California, the president announces $2.4 billion in federal funding for plug-in hybrid cars and the infrastructure to support them. He says he intends to put one million such cars on the road by 2015. (Domestic – Left)

March 18: ENDS RAIDS ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISTRIBUTORS: Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department will no longer raid medical marijuana distributors, a tactic used by the Bush administration. Thirteen states, including California, permit medical marijuana use. Holder indicates he would allocate the department’s resources elsewhere. (Domestic – Left)

March 9: REMOVES LIMITS ON STEM CELL RESEARCH FUNDING: President Obama issues an executive order removing limits imposed on federal funding for stem cell research by George W. Bush, and urges Congress to further ease restrictions. The action draws the ire of pro-life groups, with New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith going so far as to call Obama “the abortion president.” (Domestic – Left)

March 6: CONSIDERS MEETING WITH MODERATE TALIBAN MEMBERS: In an interview with the New York Times aboard Air Force One, the president said he was open to exploring “opportunities” with more moderate elements of the Taliban, trying to replicate the reconciliation process that worked in Iraq. (Foreign – Left)

February 27: ANNOUNCES CAUTIOUS IRAQ POLICY: In a speech to U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the president announces that combat troops will leave Iraq by August 2010. Remaining troops will be withdrawn by December 2011. Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, told The New York Times that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the plan’s success, a position echoed by former Bush administration officials. (Foreign – Center)

February 26:  SUBMITS HUGE BUDGET REQUEST TO CONGRESS: President Obama submits his $3.6 trillion budget for fiscal year 2010 to Congress. The budget is $500 billion larger than George W. Bush’s 2009 budget and approximately double the size of Bill Clinton 2000 budget. Republicans criticize the budget for increasing both spending and taxation, which New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg predicts will cripple future generations. (Domestic – Left)

February 17: DEPLOYS 17,000 MORE TROOPS TO AFGHANISTAN: The president announces he will deploy 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, supplementing the 36,000 soldiers already stationed in the country. Antiwar groups criticize the escalation, but Obama decides to deploy another 4,000 troops on March 27. (Foreign – Center)

February 17: SIGNS STIMULUS PACKAGE PASSED MOSTLY BY DEMOCRATS: President Obama signs the $787 billion stimulus package bill after trying and failing to find bipartisan consensus on the issue. No Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the bill, and only three Republican senators did. One of them, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has since joined the Democratic Party. (Domestic – Left)

February 9:  WHITE HOUSE INVOKES STATE-SECRETS PRIVILEGE: Douglas Letter, an Obama administration lawyer, argues that a suit brought against Boeing by Ethiopian national Binyan Mohamed in San Francisco should be thrown out of an appeals court because trying the case would force discussion of “state secrets,” a legal tactic also used by the Bush administration. Civil liberties groups criticized the administration’s argument, but White House Counsel Gregory Craig cites historical precedent. “Every president in my lifetime has invoked the state-secrets privilege,” Craig, 64, told the New York Times. (Domestic/Foreign – Center)

February 5: EXPANDS OFFICE OF FAITH-BASED AND NEIGHBORHOOD PARTNERSHIPS: The president signs an executive order to expand the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an office created by George W. Bush. Obama does not comment on whether or not organizations receiving money from the office may discriminate based on religion when hiring, a thorny issue for proponents of civil liberties. (Domestic – Center)

February 4: IMPOSES PAY CAP ON EXECUTIVES OF BAILED OUT FIRMS: President Obama imposed a $500,000 pay cap on some of the senior executives in firms that the government helped bail out by pumping in rescue money.  (Domestic – Left)

February 4: EXPANDS HEALTH CARE COVERAGE FOR CHILDREN: President Obama signs a bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, an initiative designed to provide healthcare to children of families too well-off to qualify for Medicaid but too poor to afford health insurance. Though President Bush had twice vetoed similar bills, 40 House Republicans vote for the measure this time. (Domestic – Left)

February 4: REVOKES LEASES FOR OIL AND GAS DRILLING: Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar revokes leases to drill for oil and natural gas on more than 100,000 acres of federally owned land in Utah near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Salazar argues that the Bush administration, which had auctioned off the leases in December, had not undertaken proper review procedures to avoid environmental damage. (Domestic – Left [-3])

February 3: SELECTS CONSERVATIVE FOR COMMERCE SECRETARY: After his initial Commerce Secretary pick, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, withdraws his name from consideration, Obama taps New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican, to fill the position. Gregg initially accepts, but pulls out nine days later citing “irresolvable conflicts” between his views and the administration’s. If he had not withdrawn, Gregg would have joined Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as the Republican cabinet member. (Domestic – Center/Left [+2])

January 27: GRANTS FIRST TV INTERVIEW TO AL ARABIYA: President Obama grants his first televised interview from the White House to the Dubai-based Arabic-language station Al Arabiya, encouraging an increased dialogue with the Arab world. He criticizes Iran while urging cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. (Foreign – Left [-5])

January 26: TOUGHENS ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS: The president directs the Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a formal review of applications to tighten emissions standards by 14 states, including California. President Bush has rejected similar applications. Obama also issues a directive to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to begin drafting higher automobile fuel efficiency standards. The Department of Transportation releases the standards on March 27. (Domestic – Left [-4])

January 23:  AUTHORIZES DRONE ATTACKS IN PAKISTAN: Two missile attacks in Waziristan demonstrate President Obama’s willingness to continue the Bush-era policy of hunting terrorists in the remote area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite Pakistani objections. (Foreign – Center [+5])

January 23: FUNDS ABORTIONS OVERSEAS: President Obama signs an executive order reversing George W. Bush’s ban on providing federal aid for organizations involved in performing abortions overseas. The ban, first imposed by Ronald Reagan in 1984, became symbolic of the so-called culture wars at the presidential level after Bill Clinton reversed the ban shortly after taking office in 1993. (Domestic/Foreign – Left [-5])

January 22: CLOSES SECRET PRISONS: President Obama signs executive orders mandating the closure of the Central Intelligence Agency’s network of secret prisons as well as the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. The orders also prohibit the CIA from using the harsh interrogation techniques employed under George W. Bush’s administration. (Foreign – Left [-7])

January 21:  FIRST CALL TO PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT: President Obama called various leaders in the Middle East on his first full day in office, making the first call to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority. (Foreign – Left [-2])

January 21: SEEKS GREATER TRANSPARENCY: President Obama pushes for great government transparency, trying to limit lobbyists’ influence on the White House, and making agencies respond faster and more fully to Freedom of Information Act requests. (Domestic – Left [-3])

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The challenges ahead

The new president must decide on the size of government, his foreign-policy philosophy and whether to govern from the center

By Gil Troy, Freelance, Montreal Gazette, January 21, 2009

Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.
Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.

Photograph by: JESSICA RINALDI, REUTERS, Freelance

The hoopla surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration was moving. The challenges he acknowledged in his speech are sobering. But beyond the policy conundrums of today and the future hopes of tomorrow that Obama’s inaugural speech focused on, he must address three underlying dilemmas that continue to bewitch America’s presidents. Barack Obama is joining a two-century-old conversation about just how big government should be, just what kind of foreign policy America should have, and whether a president should lead as a partisan or lead from the centre.

Regarding the first question, President Obama – along with his predecessor George W. Bush – is trusting big government. Since the American Revolution, Americans have debated how much independence they should have as individuals and how much dependence they should have on government collectively. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan rejected the half century of government expansion that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal jump started and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society intensified.

Reagan’s inaugural declaration that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” proved so compelling that in 1996, preparing to run for re-election, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who proclaimed “the era of big government is over.”

Actually, under both Clinton and Reagan, government continued growing, although more slowly. Even before the stock- market crash, George W. Bush had emerged, anomalously, as a Big Government Conservative. Bush’s interventionist foreign policy and occasional bursts of compassionate conservatism expanded government. Still, many people, especially Democrats, viewed the 2008 financial meltdown as history’s verdict on two decades of Reagan-Bush deregulation (overlooking Clinton’s role in it all). Bush himself put ideology aside to approve hundreds of billions in bailouts.

Obama has embraced the narrative and the policy. So far, his ambitious ideas for a fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, massive energy investment, suggest he is banking his administration’s success on repudiating the Reagan Revolution with a twist. In his writings and speeches, Obama has insisted he is not a Sixties-style, throw-money-and-big-programs-at-any-problem, kind of liberal. He has promised a new synthesis, with a more vigorous, effective government wary of big bureaucracies, avoiding unrealistic goals, and sensitive to the eternals of faith, family, friends as partners in nation-building. In that spirit, Obama said yesterday that we don’t need big government or small government, but government that works.

The second dilemma, regarding foreign policy, hinges on two longstanding debates. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned Americans to avoid “entangling alliances.” It is often obscured with the U.S. so enmeshed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but the country has a strong isolationist streak. While arguing whether they should be more isolationist or interventionist, Americans also debate whether their foreign strategy should be realist or idealist. Realists emphasize U.S. needs; idealists focus on spreading democracy and other U.S. ideals worldwide.

Thanks to the backlash against Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist and isolationist schools are ascendant. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But 24 hours into the job, Obama already knows the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal.

Finally, while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is somewhat imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of Earth.” Or, as the new president put it, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

As he defines his domestic and foreign policies, Obama will be demonstrating just how he wants to lead. Bush, coached by his political guru Karl Rove, spent much of his presidency mobilizing the conservative base, playing to partisans. This strategy helped Bush win re-election in 2004 but lose big in the court of public opinion, retiring with a dismal 22 per cent approval rating.

Despite having strong, big-government-oriented, liberal roots, Obama has displayed a more pragmatic and moderate leadership vision. He seems committed to leading from the centre. So far, he filled his government with pragmatists, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, nominated as Secretary of State, and the economic gurus Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Obama believes in muscular moderation, in being rooted in principle but reaching out, building bridges, seeking unity.

This leadership tradition stretches back to George Washington, who urged Americans to work together in building their “common cause,” and Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves slowly, gradually, to avoid alienating the critical, still-slave-holding Border States.

Inauguration Day is a day of potential, with the new administration facing a bright, golden wave of tomorrows. As Obama begins to govern, he will have to navigate some tough days and, inevitably, end up with some failed yesterdays.

In going from campaigning to governing, from speech-making to policy-making, Obama will have to find what works in the moment to build toward a better future, ever sensitive to the echoes of the past, as by virtue of his position and his power he starts shaping – and being shaped by – history.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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HNN Debate: Should Obama Lead from the Center or Not?

By Allan Lichtman and Gil Troy

HNN, 12-15-08

Mr. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. His six books include Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 and The Keys to the White House.

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.


HNN Editor Recently, Allan Lichtman recommended in a post on the Britannica Blog that Barack Obama should adhere to four simple rules followed by FDR. Three of the rules sounded the same notes being heard all over Washington these days: 1. Strike early. 2. Bring the people with you. 3. Think big and broadly. But the fourth rang a controversial bell: Don’t govern from the middle. We thought this fourth point was worth further exploration. We asked historian Gil Troy, author of the new book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, to comment. What follows is an exiciting Lichtman/Troy roundtable.

Allan Lichtman

Great presidents don’t move to the middle they move the middle to them by changing the conversation about government and implementing programs that work. That is what FDR did for liberal governance in the 1930s and Ronald Reagan for conservative governance in the 1980s.

No political leader in the history of the government has gained major political success or produced fundamental changes in national policy by attempting to move to the middle. Rather the so-called “center” of American politics is the graveyard of mediocre one-term presidents like William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. The centrist presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton won two terms in office, but they both lost control of Congress in their first term and failed to pass on the presidency to a candidate of their party.

By following the example of FDR Obama can prove that it is possible to learn from history and not merely be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Gil Troy

I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to Strike Early. Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. Bringing the People With You is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. Thinking Big and Broadly is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.

Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.

To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.

In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives. One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, The Triumph of Politics, complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.

This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.

When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in The Audacity of Hope. Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.

Allan Lichtman

I appreciate Gil Troy’s positive comments on most of my piece on how Barack Obama could become another FDR. I take issue, of course, with his criticism of my recommendation that Obama should not govern from the middle, but should boldly implement progressive policies.

Troy’s arguments are based on the faulty premise that departure from what he calls the “muscular middle” necessary means the embrace of some sort of radicalism or extremism. This is evident by his contrasting Roosevelt’s policies with “radicals” who “demanded revolution” during the Great Depression. Of course, Roosevelt was no radical or revolutionary, but his policies were decidedly more progressive than the middle-of-the road for his time. Indeed, Roosevelt’s New Deal established much of the modern liberal tradition against which conservatives have been railing against for decades.

According to the acclaimed Poole-Rosenthal index of conservative-liberal ideology (with liberal ratings from 0 to -1 and conservative ratings from 0 to +1) FDR’s rating for the New Deal period — based on his legislative advocacy — was -.58. This places him well to the left of the center of US politics at the time. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during the period was +.02 and for all House members -.06.

Likewise it makes no sense to tab Reagan as a centrist because he didn’t mechanically follow the lead of the most extreme right-wingers. As a true conservative and not a middle-roader, Reagan did far more than just slow the growth of government, he engineered foundational changes in tax, regulatory, and defense policies, and in America’s approach to the world. His administration established the modern conservative era of American politics. Reagan’s Poole-Rosenthal rating of +.742 during his first two years places him far to the right in the American political spectrum. By contrast, the mean scores for all US Senators during this period was +.02 and for all House members -.03.

If both FDR with his -.58 rating and Ronald Reagan with nearly his polar opposite rating of +.742 are both centrists then the concept has lost all meaning. By this odd reckoning, all presidents are centrists and have governed from some vast ill-defined middle. However, if Troy means only to say that leading from the “muscular middle” means avoiding the contentious, bitter partisanship of the Bush years, then I heartily agree. However, no political leader and no political party has transformed American politics by leading from the ideological center of his times.

Barack Obama has a golden opportunity to implement such progressive policies as establishing universal health care coverage, weaning us off the fossil fuel economy, vigorously protecting civil rights and liberties, reforming the tax code, and instituting a more cooperative and multilateral approach to international affairs. He should not be dissuaded from pursuing these commitments by misguided advice to govern from the middle.

Gil Troy

I appreciate Allan Lichtman’s reaction to my response to his initial, thought-provoking post. We disagree both about whether successful presidents have led from the center and whether Barack Obama should be what I call a muscular moderate. Our disagreement manifests itself in three important ways: methodologically, historically, and politically.

For starters, I am too much the historian and not enough of a political scientist to settle historiographical disputes with the “Poole-Rosenthal Index of Conservative-Liberal Ideology” or any other formulaic attempt to reduce the complexities of reality to a simple batting average. Such approaches would have made graduate school a whole lot easier – but a lot less interesting.

Of course, the P-R index and others help assess a presidency. My conception of a muscular moderate acknowledges that the FDRs of the world will tack left while the Reagans will tack right – but the question is how much? And here, we plunge into our historical clash. I agree that it would be simplistic to give Roosevelt, Reagan, or other presidents centrist merit badges just for not being as extreme as the most fanatic elements of their respective parties. But in placing a particular president on the spectrum, and divining the secrets to his success, we must factor in the tug-of-war of the political process.

The center is, of course, an elusive target (just as definitions of liberalism and conservative or left and right have shifted over the decades). But we can deem a president a centrist when he acts more as a pragmatist than an ideologue, when he compromises on key measures if not core ideals, when he uses his bully pulpit to forge as broad a coalition as possible both in Congress and among the people. Simply seeing the FDR years as a lurch -.58 to the left and the Reagan years as a lurch +.742 to the right not only misses the subtleties but overlooks the serious ways in which the president’s and party’s ideological wings were clipped in both eras.

We need not fully embrace Barton Bernstein’s characterization of the New Deal as a “conservative achievement” but I always have been struck by Roosevelt’s discipline – most of the time – in not overstepping during an era when cries for more radical solutions were mainstreamed. And I link FDR’s triangulation process to a broader American leadership tradition rooted in George Washington’s enlightened approach to mobilizing Americans behind a “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic focus on of first keeping the country united and alive, then freeing it from the stench of slavery, and Theodore Roosevelt’s bully-bully romantic nationalism seeking to make America more progressive without alienating big business, too much. The result in the 1930s – as I argued in my last post – was the uniquely American welfare state that stretched our constitutional limits but was a far cry from the European reality or homegrown leftist dreams.

Similarly, I echo the analysis of James Patterson, Alonzo Hamby and others in viewing Ronald Reagan as more of an incrementalist than an ideologue. This centrism of Reagan’s, this understanding of the need to compromise and sell his program broadly, accounted for his success. At the same time, Bill Clinton’s tenure is a cautionary tale for moderates. Simply being a finger-to-the-wind spineless centrist, lacking big ideas and core principles which you can at least compromise on, leaves you with little more than the policy bandaids of the Clinton years and the impression he created of tremendous potential unfulfilled.

So, to end by focusing on the political differences this exchange uncovers, I desperately hope that Barack Obama leads from the center, appealing to what he has called the “pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.” I discovered by analyzing America’s centrist tradition that the search for moderation is really about reinvigorating a new broad vision of American nationalism – and advancing policies that reinforce a big, broad tent approach. It starts with repudiating the George W. Bush-Karl Rove 50-percent-plus-one strategy of simply mobilizing enough partisans to ensure re-election. But it entails picking moderate, non-ideological advisers – as Obama has done so far. It entails reaching out symbolically and substantively to Republicans and more conservative Democrats – as Obama has done so far. And it entails singing a song of centrism while advancing constructive, bridge-building policies that are rooted in the ideas of one camp but acknowledge the concerns of the opposition. It requires complex solutions to complex problems, mindful of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that only the thorny questions end up on the president’s desk, the easy ones are solved before they get to the chief executive.

What that means more concretely (to follow Lichtman’s agenda) is constructing a health care reform that avoids triggering the big-government fears Republicans exploited so effectively in killing the Clintons’ program. It means using government stimulus to find alternative energy sources but not in such a heavyhanded way as to smother individual or corporate initiatives – or trigger another great inflation thanks to soaring budgets. It means tax reform that does not return us to crushing burdens of the 1950s or the 1970s. And it means protecting civil liberties and working together with allies without being afraid to treat terrorism as a military problem not simply a crime and without forgetting how in the Middle East cooperation and diplomacy can be perceived as weakness.

This summer, Barack Obama demonstrated the kind of muscular moderation America needs, when he endorsed a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed. This nuanced approach angered many of his core supporters. In a remarkable on-line exchange with thousands of his field workers, Obama explained why the new legislation did not cross his red lines – while affirming his commitment to defend civil liberties if legislation did. As one volunteer who participated told me, he showed he was willing to listen to the complaints, he understood the disagreement, but he was comfortable with his decision. George W. Bush rarely showed he was willing to listen. Bill Clinton too frequently caved in on core issues. At that moment, and many others, Obama demonstrated that he just might walk the walk as well as talk the talk – governing as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy,HNN, 11-19-08

I agree with three of Allan Lichtman’s four “simple rules” suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to “Strike Early.” Americans’ desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad. “Bringing the People With You” is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill described Americans’ insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed. “Thinking Big and Broadly” is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule “Don’t Govern from the Middle.” In fact, Obama should lead from the center – but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.

Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.

To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian’s favorite text – context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America’s prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution. “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history,” an admirer told Roosevelt. “If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt responded: “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt’s reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America’s past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.

In the historian Richard Hofstadter’s apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America’s constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest failure – his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court – resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme – adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy – failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people’s appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal – but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate – advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan’s Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives.

One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book, “The Triumph of Politics,” complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government – but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman’s glum conclusion was that American government was more “Madisonian,” fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.

This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation – and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair – compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.

When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush’s controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises, “I guarantee you’ll get seventy votes out of the Senate.” Rove replied, “We don’t want seventy votes. We want fifty-one.” This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush’s presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in “The Audacity of Hope.” Obama then wrote: “Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit.” This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about – and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR’s presidency – and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.

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Macleans, Megapundit, July 23, 2003

“There’s a fine line between pragmatism and cynicism,” L. Ian MacDonald writes in the Montreal Gazette, and Barack Obama “runs a risk of crossing it” with his pronounced lurch to the centre of the political spectrum—particularly since he has so many gosh-darned earnest supporters on the leftmost flanks of the Democratic Party. But he, and McGill University history professor Gil Troy, suggest the centrist Obama is, in fact, the real Obama. So in other words, he’s not betraying his supporters now—he betrayed them months ago!

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Barack Obama’s mad rush toward the middle
The Democrat is following a well-trod path to moderation on the political stage

L. IAN MACDONALD, The Montreal Gazette, Wednesday, July 23, 2008

…There’s a fine line between pragmatism and cynicism, and Obama runs a risk of crossing it, especially since he started out as the candidate of hope and change.

But Gil Troy, for one, perceives that Obama is returning to his centrist origins, as well as heeding the rules of post-primary positioning.

Troy, a McGill University history professor and presidential scholar, has just brought out a timely book in the U.S. on the subject of centrism in American politics, entitled Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

“When you read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, or when you hear his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention,” Troy says, “that’s a much more centrist vision than what we saw in the primaries.”

From Washington, where he’s a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, Troy adds: “I look at it less as pandering that someone needs to do than as someone being what he’s always been.”

In Troy’s centrist all-star lineup, Obama could fit right in with 20th-century presidents who usually found the common middle ground – Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who named the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the Supreme Court.

“To the frustration of his core supporters,” writes Troy, “Reagan repeatedly compromised, caring more about national unity, relative political calm and his own popularity.”

Troy defines the “Great American Centre” as having “a long proud history of offering a muscular moderation, not a mushy middle.”

Obama also seems to be on what Troy describes in his book as “this search for the centre, this majoritarian stance, (which) may be the quintessential democratic quest.”

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From an online discussion on The Power Line Forum, July 9-10, 2008

Let’s distinguish between two different questions here. One, is Obama (or McCain) a centrist? What does that mean, is that a good thing? I start from the premise that both of them, in different ways, are more moderate than most of their party colleagues and that for each of them that centrism was a strength. Moreover, I find that moderation not surprising and actually a good thing, because I believe that centrist leadership is the right way to go – it’s both politically wise and constructive. Which is why I call my book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. (I confess, I constructed that sentence in response to the product placement remark).

Now, the second set of questions, is Obama repositioning – and is that a good thing. Well here too we’re seeing two things. One, a bit of a corrective after some of the absurdities of the primary battle. Note, for example, the ridiculous scapegoating both Obama and Hillary Clinton were guilty of with NAFTA… Second, we’re also seeing the “Oh, boy phenomenon,” where Obama says, “wow, this is real, I might actually become president, so sloppy sloganeering during the campaign about Iraq might actually lead to dead Americans (or Iraqis) – pretty sobering. I think that’s a good thing, no?  Don’t we want a president who can adjust a bit to changing circumstances?

Barack Obama on the campaign trail

Barack Obama on the campaign trail from http://www.barackobama.com

Well, for starters, to be technical, he hasn’t yet been nominated, but I know what you mean. George McGovern would certainly give Obama a run for his money in a leftist sweepstakes, and if you examine his ideology, rather than his track record in 1976, Jimmy Carter, too. So historically, there’s much to be debate there.  More pressing, I think Obama is a hologram. I certainly see his liberal voting record in the Senate, and the leftist academic milieu that nurtured him intellectually, socially, culturally and politically. At the same time, when you read Audacity of Hope, when you watch his great 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, not only a lyrical centrist emerges – but actually, a smart, post-Reaganite Democrat. In Audacity, Obama accepts major parts of the traditionally-oriented, family-values conservative cultural critique of America.  He also sees some limitations on government – that shows a more conservative side than, say, John Kerry, ever displayed. But Obama also believes that government can intervene constructively, and his agenda is very much a progressive one. So, in all, he’s more complex than the centrist or leftist caricature suggests. But I believe that if enough moderates voices push him, his inner centrist will come out – for the good of the country.

There has been much debate over labeling Obama. Is he a “Lefty”?? Is he a “Moderate”?  He claims he is “complicated,” but what does that really mean??

I believe that Obama — or McCain, or whoever becomes our next POTUS —- MUST remain in the middle. As I argue in my latest book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle.

Americans have a tradition of muscular moderation, and if we don’t figure out how to push our candidates towards the centre, rather than to the poles, we are going to deeply regret it.

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